Steven Malanga and Rafael Mangual join Seth Barron to discuss concerns that lawlessness is returning to American cities, a theme that Malanga and Mangual explore in separate feature stories in the Summer 2019 Issue of City Journal.

Memories of the urban chaos and disorder of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s have faded, and many local leaders today have forgotten the lessons of that bygone era. Malanga’s story, “The Cost of Bad Intentions” (available soon online), shows how a new generation of politicians are bringing back some of the terrible policies that got American cities into trouble in the first place. On crime and incarceration, Mangual argues that the new disorder will grow worse if progressives manage to overhaul the American criminal-justice system.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on today’s show, Seth Barron will talk with Steve Malanga and Ralf Mangual about their cover stories for the summer 2019 issue, which we packaged under the larger section in the magazine, called “The New Disorder.” In the 1960s, as City Journal readers know, the American city entered a downward spiral, one leading to decades of violent crime, widespread disorder, and bad economic policies. As progressive mayors embraced ill-advised ideas, they only chased away more residents and business to the suburbs. By the ‘90s, though, cities began to retake control of their streets with smarter policing that focused on crime and quality-of-life concerns. Those reforms allowed cities like New York to enjoy a new era of prosperity. Now, unfortunately, all this is at risk. A new generation of progressive leaders have emerged who are reverting to the very ideas that once led to urban decline. Last week, we released Ralf’s essay from the issue, and it’s already received a lot of attention. You can check it out on the City Journal website, and we’ll link to it in the description. Steve’s essay will be available online soon. That’s it from me. The conversation between Seth Barron, Steve Malanga, and Ralf Mangual begins after this.

Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks, the podcast of City Journal. This is your host for today, Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal. I'm joined by two colleagues, Steve Malanga and Rafael Mangual to discuss articles they've written for the summer issue of City Journal. Steve, who is a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute and senior editor of City Journal wrote an item called "The Cost of Bad Intentions." Ralf, a fellow at Manhattan Institute, wrote "Everything You Don't Know About Mass Incarceration." Both pieces are included under a larger heading in this issue, The New Disorder. Steve and Ralf, thanks for coming on the podcast.

Rafael Mangual: Thanks for having us.

Steven Malanga: Pleasure to be here.

Seth Barron: So Steve, you say in your piece that progressive politicians in our major cities are working with bad intentions. That's a bold statement. How can you defend that?

Steven Malanga: Well, pretty easily. We went through, in America in the '60s and '70s and also in the early '80s, an era of civic and urban disorder. Cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago saw a rise in crime, very high crime rates, homelessness, drug trade, and this contributed to, for instance, a decline in population in places like New York City, the flight of the middle class to suburbs. We reverse that trend in the '90s, thanks to a whole bunch of policies, including New York City's war against street crime and vagrancy, for instance, that made the cities orderly again. Now, even though we've had 25 years of that restoration of order, of far safer cities, we're starting to see policies that once again tolerate the kinds of social disorder that we saw in the '60s and '70s and '80s. Toleration of open drug use, people living on the streets again and being allowed to live on the streets, open-air drug markets, needle exchanges happening in places like Seattle and Portland, human excrement— in San Francisco, something like 60,000 reports filed with the police of human excrement on the streets. Disorder in the subways in New York, fare beating, which was really reduced in the subways— it was a pervasive problem in the '70s and '80s— fare beating has returned; the MTA says they're losing something like $200 million a year now, thanks to this, and in part that's because prosecutors in Manhattan are no longer prosecuting minor crimes like fare beating. So, what we're seeing is a return to the kind of policies that tolerated small acts of social disorder, which grew into much larger problems, and it's very clear that we see rising crime rates. We also see rising levels of homelessness, toleration of this, and it's being framed by a whole series of progressive politicians around the country as an economic problem, when the thing that we learned in the '90s is that, in many cases, it's not because the people who, for instance, are fare beating are not fare beating in a place like New York City because they can't afford the subways. For the most part, it's if you allow them, if you give them the opportunity, if you don't enforce the laws, people take advantage of that. So we're seeing a direct result of this in a whole bunch of cities around America.

Seth Barron: But the intention is to keep people out of the criminal justice system and to keep people from getting wrapped up in what people have called the various pipelines: the school-to-prison pipeline, the subway-to-prison pipeline. Ralf, you take issue, though, with the idea of mass incarceration, but it's indisputable that the United States imprisons more people per capita than any other developed nation. So, how is it that mass incarceration isn't a problem? And I want to connect the two pieces. Do we want to see people on the street getting sucked into this carceral system?

Rafael Mangual: One of the first things that we have to make clear is that the sort of crimes that Steve is referring to don't actually ever end up with prison entrances when they're enforced. It is just patently false to assert that the enforcement of quality-of-life crimes and lower level offenses like fare beating leads to an increase in the prison population. Prison tends to be reserved for our most serious violent offenders. We know this because there's extensive data reporting on who's in prison, and the vast majority of prisoners in the United States are in for serious violent offenses, and almost all of them have preexisting records that led to that decision in the first place. One of the things that people don't realize is that only about 40% of felony convictions in the United States result in a prison sentence. That's a relatively small number, given that the majority don't. And a significant number of the people— in fact, the majority of the people who are going to prison for serious violent offenses, for example, already have preexisting conviction records. So that's one thing that we need to clear up. But this oft-lamented fact that the United States has a bigger prison population than other developed nations fails to take into account a couple of things. For one, it fails to take into account the fact that the United States has a much higher rate of very serious gun and violent crime like murder for example. In the context of the gun control debate, you often hear the same Democrats calling for criminal justice reform, lamenting the fact that the United States has a higher rate of shootings and murders than other developed nations, particularly Western European democracies. We have a higher incarceration rate because we have more of the serious sorts of crimes that tend to lead to incarceration in the first place. So that's one thing.The other is a matter of resources. The United States is a very wealthy nation that has the ability to direct resources toward its criminal justice apparatus in a way that some other nations perhaps do not. Those things are what drive the differences in our incarceration rate, not just some blood lust for seeing people behind bars.

Steven Malanga: It's also important to understand that the enforcement of quality of life laws is important. These are things that we learned during the '90s. Number one, because they often lead us to violent criminals. People who are doing things like fare beating, when you crack down on fare beating in the New York City subways, what happens is, a substantial number of the people that you arrest are people whom we find have warrants out for them for more serious crimes. So, one of the things that quality of life enforcement does is it leads us to those people that we can remove because they do have a record or they are wanted for violent crime. The other thing that's important to understand is that when you allow, if you will, let's say something like fare beating or you openly allow aggressive panhandling, you create a sense of unease within the society, which essentially sends the message that no one's quite in charge here. In their famous article about broken windows, George Kelling and James Q. Wilson said that's the kind of thing that encourages people who might not actually break the law, they call them marginal case, it makes them more willing to consider breaking the law. And that just creates a rolling disorder within the society. So, this idea that we shouldn't enforce quality-of-life laws because we don't want people to get caught up in the criminal justice system only winds up catching more people up in the criminal justice.

Seth Barron: But isn't there an extent to which a constant police presence and the constant criminalization of poverty and normal, everyday activity creates its own criminogenic effects?

Steven Malanga: Well, it depends on what kind of police presence you are talking about. Part of the problem— which, again, Kelling and Wilson identified in their seminal article on this— part of the problem was that the police withdrew from communities. They withdrew from walking the beat. They withdrew from talking to the shopkeeper, the homeowner, and instead what they did is they got in their police cars and they reacted to crime. So, the police lost touch with the community. What we're talking about, in terms of quality-of-life policing, is having police back in the community responding to the complaints of citizens. Here's the crucial thing to understand. You've talked about this enforcement; I'll give you another example. One example is enforcement, for instance, of marijuana possession laws. A lot of progressives point to arrests for simple possession of marijuana and say, 'why is this occurring?' Well, one reason it's occurring is because people in their communities— homeowners, shopkeepers— call 911 or call 311 and complain. People in public housing who don't feel safe because this activity is going on, they call to complain. So, the police are often reacting to what law-abiding citizens are asking them to do. And if you don't do that, you really create a sense, even within law abiding citizens, that nobody's in control.

Rafael Mangual: Right. The important thing to keep in mind is that when police react, they don't necessarily have to react with an arrest. Enforcement does not always equal an arrest. George Kelly and James Q. Wilson made very clear, in their writings on broken windows enforcement, that sometimes it's just as effective to have a police officer pour out the alcohol contents of an open container violator rather than put that person in handcuffs and send them to jail. The reality, again, is that when it comes to things like, say, marijuana possession, you can probably count the number of people in Riker's Island serving time for that kind of sentence on one hand, on any given day in New York. So that's number one. And number two is, when people have the sense that no one is in charge of a public space, it's not only a problem because other people who are, say, on the margins may decide that they're going to go over to the other side and commit an offense that they maybe wouldn't have otherwise committed in a more orderly public square, but good, law-abiding citizens will also begin to avoid those public spaces. And that is important, because in any society, no matter how big the police department, the primary enforcers of social norms have always been law-abiding citizens, but in order for them to do that, they need to have the confidence that they are going to be backed up, both by their fellow citizens and by the police. And if you create the sense that no one is in charge in a public space, no one will get the courage up to tell someone who's littering, 'hey, pick that up,' because they will be afraid of retribution, and no one coming to their aid. That's a really key part of the broken windows theory, and of the broken window style of policing that I think often gets lost in these discussions.

Seth Barron: You've both mentioned marijuana and marijuana use. Marijuana use among black and white people is the same, but black people are arrested for marijuana violations much more. Isn't that absolute evidence that there's racial bias in the way the police effect arrests?

Rafael Mangual: I don't think that's right, in large part because of how police resources are deployed. If you look at serious crime in the United States, what you see very clearly and very quickly is that serious crime is hyper concentrated. A relative handful of neighborhoods in a relative handful of cities are responsible for an outsize portion, say, of the United States's murders. Chicago's South and West side has a murder rate that's probably twice that city's citywide murder rate and several times greater than the national average. So, you have to look at where police resources are deployed. And the sad reality is that an outsize portion of our violent crime is concentrated in low-income minority neighborhoods, which is where police are going to be to begin with. That drives a significant chunk of that disparity. And again, like Steve said, some of this lower level enforcement effort is really a pretextual attack on more serious and violent crime. The reality is that criminals don't specialize. The same person who may jump a turnstile or smoke some pot on the corner may also be the guy who, next week, will pull a trigger. It really is a false way of thinking about this problem to categorize offenders as violent and nonviolent based on, say, the last thing for which they were arrested. There are many property offenders in our prisons, and violence rates in those prisons, as well as their prior conviction records and recidivism records, indicate very clearly that they don't always stick to nonviolent offenses. Take drug criminals, for example— and I point this out in my piece— more than three quarters of state prisoners who were released that were serving time primarily for a drug offense go on to commit a non-drug crime. There is a significant amount of overlap between people who engage in the drug trade and people who are pulling triggers and committing drive-by shootings, et cetera, and that is why police are concentrating their scarce resources in the most dangerous parts of the country, which unfortunately, happen to be disproportionately minority.

Steven Malanga: Right. And we frankly know, to answer your original question very specifically, the NYPD has testified and showed us that the 911 and 311 calls for complaints about marijuana are disproportionately coming from minority areas. So, the residents of those areas themselves are making the complaints, and they're responding to the complaints by the law-abiding citizens in those areas. The idea is to protect those individuals. So if that's where the complaints are coming from, it shouldn't be shocking that that's where the arrests may be coming from also.

Seth Barron: What about the concern that gentrification is driving these complaints.

Rafael Mangual: I'm not sure that's the case at all. If you go to police community meetings in different precincts around the city, say, in East Harlem, for example, where I live now, the last time I went to a police precinct community meeting, I think 95% of the people in the room were blacks. And they were very adamant about needing more enforcement for quality-of-life offenses. There was a Puerto Rican man who got very upset because he didn't feel that the police were doing enough to respond to his complaints about teenagers smoking pot in the courtyard of his building, and he wanted to know how he could sign his building up for the Safe Hallways program so that the police could have access to enforce these kinds of offenses. I really do think there is a disconnect between what we're told about how certain communities feel about policing and law enforcement and what those law-abiding citizens of those communities actually ask for.

Steven Malanga: Right. And frankly, if gentrification were driving this, then we wouldn't see the disproportionate number of complaints coming from public housing in New York City.

Seth Barron: That's an interesting point. Mayor de Blasio came to office in 2014 and pushed for the end of stop, question, frisk as a primary police tactic and he's been behind a lot of different progressive ideas: the decriminalization of marijuana and fare beating and so forth. A lot of people said that this was going to lead to return of the battle days in New York City, but crime has continued to go down and New York City is safer than ever. Doesn't that blow a huge hole in the broken windows policing model?

Rafael Mangual: Not at all. New York has benefited from one of the longest, most sustained crime declines ever in American history. That sustained crime decline brought a lot of investment and huge demographic changes to New York City that function to basically insulate New York from falling into that sort of rut as quickly as it may have before. It takes a lot of time to undo 25 years of nonstop progress. The idea that it's going to happen overnight is nonsense, and I don't think that any of the people who oppose some of these more liberal policies ever made that claim. But the fact that the sky is not falling immediately does not render these things good ideas. In the long run, I think we will see negative externalities coming from these kinds of policies, and that that is an important thing to keep in mind. That we only lose a little bit of progress really shouldn't be the measuring stick. We should continue to move forward, and that means not adopting these kinds of policies that are very clearly associated with the negative outcomes that we want to eliminate. If you look at some other cities that have done very similar things but perhaps didn't have the same amount of progress that New York had— and I'm thinking here of Chicago; in late 2015 into 2016 their stop-and-frisk numbers went through the floor as well. And there was a recent study that just came out last week by Paul Cassell showing pretty definitively that reduction in stops-and-frisks was associated with a significant increase in murders. And we know that in 2016 murders in Chicago went up something like 58% after stops decreased by about 80%. So, the fact that it may not be happening as quickly in New York again does not render these things good ideas, and does not mean that these are models that other cities that are more vulnerable than New York is should follow.

Steven Malanga: That's exactly right. Baltimore is another example. Baltimore instituted a CompStat. If you watch the HBO cop show about Baltimore, The Wire, you actually saw CompStat meetings taking place, and they illustrated it what was going on. So they instituted that, and, frankly, in 2011, they got below 200 murders, 197 murders for the first time in 20 years or so. That's all been exploded by what happened with the kind of anti-police attitudes that emerged after the Freddie Gray incident, which caused cops in the city to pull back, to become less aggressive. Baltimore is now back up over 300 murders. It didn't take that long for that to happen. And this is a crucial thing to understand: in my story, for instance, I talk a lot about the rest of the country. I talk a bit about New York; the thing that's worrying about New York, for instance, is what's going on in the subways right now, because that's one of the first signs of growing disorder. But the thing that absolutely separates New York City from so many other cities that have tried, where you've had reformers— Cory Booker in Newark, when he first came into office, Archer in Detroit in the '90s, O'Malley in Baltimore— New York had 20 years of two mayors who relentlessly pushed an agenda that continuously made the city safer. Twenty years is a cultural change. These other cities had four or five years of that, so snap and it's over with. And, and that's what we're seeing around the country. That's what we're seeing certainly in Chicago and Baltimore, Detroit continues to struggle with this issue. What we see in New York as a worryingly quick return to disorder in the subways, which really upset people because people in New York are so used to order right now that even just the kinds of things like fare beating— I see it now; I haven't seen it in years and it makes me anxious. That's also part of the message to people that you need to understand: that to really reform a city, it takes sustained reform, and a lot of cities haven't been able to do that. New York has been very fortunate that it's had 20 years, so it's essentially effected a cultural change, which only means that it would take more to undo that. Unfortunately, we're seeing the undoing in places like Chicago, in places like Baltimore, frankly in Los Angeles, where William Bratton, who was the New York City Commissioner, went and did some great things there. And now we're seeing rising disorder again in LA, and a lot of it is not just crime. It's also an acceptance, a toleration of street living. It's the idea that people on the streets are victims of economic circumstances in the United States rather than what we know, that a substantial number of people living on the streets have addiction problems, at least 50%, perhaps more in some of these cities. And rather than intervening and getting these people into the system, we're now allowing them, in places like Seattle and Portland and San Francisco, to simply camp out on the streets, which not only disturbs the social order, but doesn't do them any good.

Seth Barron: Let me push back on something you said there, which is the idea that people are living on the streets and it's not an economic issue. The cities you mentioned, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, are all cities facing tremendous housing crunches. We hear this all the time, that the cost of living in these cities has just skyrocketed. If there were plenty of cheap apartments, I assume that people would be living in them instead of living on the street.

Steven Malanga: You can't even afford a cheap apartment if you don't have a job and you're addicted. If you have a job, there's a pathway. I'll give you an example. This television station in Seattle did a documentary on the problem, and they confronted all of the progressive verities, if you will. And one of the things they looked at was the issue of who is on the street. And they said there are no out-of-work construction workers living on the streets of Seattle. That's not who these people are. If you're an out-of-work construction worker, you can't afford to live in Seattle, you don't have a job in Seattle, you're going to go somewhere else and get a job. You're not going to live on the street. They said the people here are, overwhelmingly, people who are addicted, people who are coming here— they're actually being attracted, if that's the word, because they're allowed to live and encamp there— they're being attracted there, they're not working. They're not looking for work. They're not collecting unemployment benefits and looking for a place to live. That's not who they are. If apartments are too expensive in New York City, but you're able-bodied and want to work and can work, you don't just stay in New York City and live on the streets, you go somewhere else and find a job where you can afford to live. The idea that the alternative is 'I'm living on the streets because the rents are too expensive in New York City' ignores what we know from surveys: that many people on the streets are addicted or they have mental health problems, some of which are a result of addictions and some of which are just other sorts of mental health problems— Schizophrenia— which, because of the closing of mental institutions and deinstitutionalization, have left some people having to live on the street. But the idea that this is an economic problem is belied by the fact that people who are able-bodied and looking for work go somewhere else. If they can't afford to live somewhere, they don't live on the streets; that's not the choice that rational person makes.

Seth Barron: So, you would disagree with the idea of housing first, that we should radically expand public housing interests, give people apartments, and then they would get their lives together.

Steven Malanga: Well, the only way that giving people apartments will help them get their lives together is if, along with that, we're pushing them to work. First of all, one of the big changes in social policy in the '90s was welfare reform, which said that if you're able-bodied, you can no longer simply continue to receive welfare benefits unless you go out and find work. And the process of welfare to work got millions of people— half a million people in New York City alone— off of welfare and back into the workforce. The problem with so much of the homeless population is if you give people a place to live, but they're not looking for work, then they're just going to be a ward of the state forever. So, housing has to come with something else. This idea, and this is a very progressive idea, that people can simply remain on government benefits forever, unless they really have some kind of serious problem that makes it impossible for them to work, just giving people housing is never going to get them off of government assistance.

Seth Barron: Well, that was an interesting conversation. I'm not sure we settled the issues, but we've certainly—

Rafael Mangual: tried—

Seth Barron: —dug into them a little bit. We'd love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter @CityJournal #10 Blocks. If you like our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. This is your host for today, Seth Barron. Steve and Ralf, thanks so much for joining us.

Steven Malanga: Thank you.

Rafael Mangual: My pleasure.

Photo: no_limit_picture/iStock

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